The God Squad: Osama bin Laden's death raises some moral, spiritual questions

May 13, 2011|By Rabbi Marc Gellman

Question: The world recently witnessed a strange juxtaposition of historical events:

First, Pope John Paul II was exhumed and beatified. Within a few hours, U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden, then deep-sixed his body from the deck of the USS Carl Vinson. One man was honored for performing a miracle and the other dispatched for committing an abomination.

According to news reports, bin Laden's body was first cleansed according to Islamic custom, then "prepared religious remarks" were read before his remains were dropped into the sea. Near-saints and saints certainly merit our prayers, but what about the monsters among us? — F., via e-mail from California


Answer: About the beatification of Pope John Paul II, I am overjoyed. About the death of bin Laden, I'm joyed, but not exactly overjoyed.

Since the death of bin Laden, many readers have written to question me about whether or not he should have been given a proper Muslim funeral. Many have also been troubled by the rejoicing at his death. I, too, have doubted my own instincts in the last few days.

The first issue that will help us sort things out is the spiritual distinction between a murderer and a murderer's corpse. The main obligation we have to a mass murderer is to stop him, which often means killing him, since mass murderers generally don't show up at the local police station slapping their foreheads and saying, "I am so sorry! What was I thinking?"

Killing such a criminal is an act of justice, not revenge, and unless your religious or philosophical inclinations are pacifist, it is an act of morally justified self-defense, "One who sheds the blood of man, by man will his blood be shed, for in the image of God made He man." (Genesis 9:6).

However, a corpse is not a man. A corpse is the shell of a person. A corpse is not capable of any act of evil, so a corpse must be treated with respect. It cannot be desecrated and it must be disposed of in accordance with religious tradition if the person had a religion.

What was done with bin Laden's corpse was a proper acknowledgment of the difference between the living and the dead. It also should have served as a reminder that Osama bin Laden's life did not have to turn out the way it did.

He was not born to be a terrorist; he chose to be a terrorist. He was not born without regard for innocent life; he chose to have no regard for innocent life. His dignified funeral reminds us that a life of radical evil is not fated.

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